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If you're just coming here for the first time, uh... you're late. The site is no longer updated daily (see HERE for the story). But it's still kicking a few times a month, and it's better late than never! Most reviews nowadays are labeled "FTP:" and you should read THIS PRIMER to understand why. Also, while they're marked nowadays, many of the site's older reviews (i.e. 2010 or older) do contain unannounced spoilers, so tread carefully! Thanks for coming by and be sure to leave comments, play nice, and as always, watch Cathy's Curse.

PLEASE, GO ON...

Out Of Darkness (2022)

FEBRUARY 12, 2024

GENRE: SURVIVAL
SOURCE: THEATRICAL (REGULAR SCREENING)

Having never seen the trailer*, I only knew two things about Out of Darkness when I sat down for it: 1. That it was, alas, not based on the book by Sidney Prescott, and 2. That friends who saw it described it as "boring." But that's not a particularly enlightening description, and it's subjective af to boot. I also know people who think Session 9 is boring, whereas I'm the guy sitting there wishing it was longer. And yet I have found the last couple Michael Bay movies interminable, even though they're certainly not lacking for action sequences. A slow paced movie can reel you in or turn you off depending on so many factors (your mood, the vibe of the crowd, even the presentation) that "boring" is about as useful as identifying the font in the end credits in determining if a movie will be for you.

At any rate, I didn't find it boring. Indeed I was really into it for the first hour, despite the fact that-yes-there weren't a lot of traditional action or scares in that chunk of the film. The plot concerns a group of six nomads in the year 45,000 BC, searching for a new land because the one they left was cursed. They arrive on the shores of this new world looking for strong shelter and game to hunt, only to find it suspiciously barren and the nearest caves a few days' walk away from the beach, a daunting task when they have no food (and one of the two women is pregnant to boot). Will they survive long enough to get there? Should we put too much thought into the fact that the main couple of the group is named Adem and Ave?

That alone could be a compelling tale, but before long it's clear that there's something out there watching them, and eventually it grabs the youngest member and vanishes into the darkness. Since he is the boy's father, Adem (who is also the group's leader, a position a couple others in the group are starting to doubt he deserves) wants to follow, but is convinced to wait until the daylight so that he isn't lost (or worse) as well. As the film proceeds, his role as "heroic leader" begins to diminish, becoming a borderline villain at one point, so again even without the (monster?) out there the movie could have a compelling thrust. The idea of an alpha male being broken down by the pressure of being the leader, his own ego, and his inability to protect that what matters most is certainly something that I could watch for 87 minutes.

(Side note: yes, that is the actual runtime. A glorious gift from the cinema gods. Even with trailers I was home two hours after the start time!)

But no, there is obviously something out there reducing their number, and the movie unfortunately lost me when it was revealed (spoilers ahead, though it's kind of obvious after the second attack scene). It is not an animal or a monster (or a demon, as one member of the group seems to think) but merely Neandrethal people who were there first, and they don't even mean harm. They took the boy, yes (and it's unexplained why they did it in the manner they did; why not wait until daytime and present yourself in a less terrifying fashion?), but not to kill him--they actually brought him back to their shelter and fed him. Our main group's paranoia and mistrust is what gives the movie its body count, so ultimately it's a MESSAGE MOVIE with the rather well-tread idea that maybe we shouldn't just assume "the other" means us harm, and that ultimately we're our own worst enemy. Not that that is an inherently bad idea, but even with the acknowledged/appreciated short length it retroactively makes the movie feel long when it all boils down to the same moral of any dozen Twilight Zone episodes that were an hour shorter.

Plus (still spoilers! Skip to the next paragraph if you want) it denies us prehistoric monsters (or even a badass sabretooth tiger or something along those lines)! I feel we've been really shortchanged over the past decade when it comes to normal sized monsters; we get plenty of Godzilla types but almost nothing when it comes to 10-12 foot long beasties, other than sharks which are way overused. The hints we got about the "creature"--the kidnapping of the kid, the discovery of some giant skeleton and what seems to be enough blood to cover a cliffside, a character's jaw torn straight off--don't really gel with what we learn about it later, so it feels like a cheat on top of a copout. And when it's in favor of a lesson we can get out of a few memes on Twitter (well, maybe not these days), I couldn't help but leave disappointed after such a promising first hour.

On the plus side it looks great even after the script takes a nose dive, and the cast does a fine job of quickly creating six distinct characters (when it's almost all dark and they're all wearing animal skins/furs, it could have been easy to get them mixed up, but I never did) while also speaking a made-up language called Tola, which is based on Arabic and Basque. Since it was on the same screen I saw Silent Night two months ago, I couldn't help but wonder if the movie would have worked just as well without any dialogue at all, leaving grunts and facial expressions as the sole mode of communication. Other than the story of how they got there and why, I can't think of a single moment that required dialogue to really grasp, especially when the dialogue is weirdly anachronistic (there's an F bomb!) or just clunkily spelling out its obvious message. Great score by Adam Janota Bzowski, who also composed Saint Maud (if memory serves the score was one of the few things I liked in that one).

So I get why people were bored, but I wasn't one of them. Instead I was just annoyed by the "twist", as it undid what was working about the movie while also giving me flashbacks to a certain sorta-horror movie from 20 years ago (you can probably guess the one, if not just go look at the box office for 2004 and you'll see it pretty quick), though the context was different (and that movie offered an even more annoying twist later). Still, it's always nice to have an original horror movie in theaters (a foreign one at that!), especially one that mostly delivers: it's nice to look at, has a couple of good jolts, etc. I just wish they hadn't tried to go all "elevated" in the home stretch, as if making a straightforward survival horror movie wasn't good enough and they were hoping to get picked up by A24 instead of a lowly major (Sony, in this instance). Felt weirdly insulting, honestly.

What say you?

*I had to laugh that I uncharacteristically went to the movies on a Monday, because for the past 3-4 months I have had to see the One Love and Madame Web trailers before every single movie I have gone to see, and therefore had to suffer through them again this one last time as both finally opened the following day. I was so close to never having to see them again!

PLEASE, GO ON...

Lisa Frankenstein (2024)

FEBRUARY 8, 2023

GENRE: COMEDIC, HERO KILLER
SOURCE: THEATRICAL (REGULAR SCREENING)

Hello! I am a 43 year old straight male who didn't think Lisa Frankenstein was particularly good.

Normally I don't bother describing myself in a review, but I feel here it might be useful, because I want it to be clear that I am first to admit I'm not the target demographic for this particular movie, and maybe you simply won't care that an old white dude thinks about it. But that said, considering it's Diablo Cody's first return to the horror/comedy genre since Jennifer's Body*, which I enjoyed quite a bit (with some reservations), it's not totally out of the realm of possibility that I could have enjoyed this more than I did. And I did like it at times, so it's not a disaster, it's just... *off*. And as a result, disappointing.

The plot is perfectly fine and has loads of potential. Kathryn Newton, still playing high schoolers 12 years after Paranormal Activity 4, stars as Lisa, a goth-y outcast who works at a tailor shop (sewing skill foreshadowing is a rare but admirable note in a Frankenstein movie) and longs to be dead like the 18th century guy whose grave she visits. One night a convenient lightning bolt wakes the guy up, at which point he beelines for her house. After a few "WTF?" moments she has him shower and puts him in some fresh clothes, and he becomes her protector/ servant/ confidante. And every now and then the two of them kill people who annoyed her in order to secure a body part to replace something that's MIA on him (his hand, an ear, his... well, spoiler).

As with her previous horror-com, Cody has a weird tendency to introduce completely random plot points that seem to suggest a more fleshed out narrative, only to just shrug them off. In Jennifer's Body it was the thing with the orange balls/waterfall "portal" and the school's gym becoming a swamp. Here it's the backstory for Lisa, as we learn her mother was killed by a Ghostface type masked slasher a year before, leaving her nearly mute. The way it's presented suggests it will play a part in the present day (i.e. the killer will come back, and/or be revealed to be someone she knew), but nope. Her mom was murdered by a masked slasher and I guess he didn't do anything else after that. Why have something so specific if there's nothing further to it? Why not just kill her in a car accident or something? Similarly, what happened to this guy for him to lose a few body parts? It's bizarre Lisa never once thinks to hit up the library and see what she can learn about her new boyfriend, even if to confirm he wasn't, you know, the same kind of murderer who killed her mom.

The weirdest part is how casual she is about the rising body count. She was supposedly traumatized by an earlier act of violence, but now seems pretty blase about doing it herself? It's just a really odd disconnect, and (also like JB) the film's third act is rushed through without any genuine resolutions to these plot threads. Lisa never shows any real remorse for their murders, including that of someone who did absolutely nothing wrong (earlier she goes after a guy who tried coercing her into sex, so we can "go girl!" that one, but this other guy... nope. And he gets it worse!), so it's not even easy to root for her after a while. Like you can have all the weird plot points you want, but if the character development is equally haphazard, there's a problem.

One thing that's not botched, and actually quite endearing, is that the only (living) person who genuinely cares for Lisa is her stepsister Taffy (Liza Soberano). Even her own dad is kind of zoned out when she tries to talk to him, but Taffy supports her, tries to get her out of her shell, etc. Normally a stepsister is just another thorn in the side of an introverted character like Lisa, so to see them get along and care about each other was refreshing. That said, Carla Gugino as the stepmother is so cartoonishly mean that it more than makes up for Taffy's refusal to be a stereotype, but far be it from me to decry the sight of Ms. Gugino chewing some scenery. She can do whatever she wants.

Much has been made of the film's 1989 setting, but I never really saw a purpose for it other than, I suppose, having an easy excuse to make pop culture references. Gugino fretting about her Precious Moments figurines, the family going to see Look Who's Talking, a gag about the Sports Illustrated football phone (30 years after Wayne's World 2 already did a better one, but whatever)... there aren't as many as some other period pieces focused on the era, but there are enough to establish it even if you ignore the clothing and hairstyles, which are all on point (take it from me, an Old who was actually around then). Weirdly, the movie takes a while to firmly establish that it's the '80s, and given the Tim Burton influence, one could just assume that it was just being retro with its production design as a choice (sort of like how Edward Scissorhands LOOKS like the 1950s/60s, but clearly isn't since they have VCRs and such) instead of using it to specify a timeframe.

As for the Monster, he's delightful. Cole Sprouse is pretty much mute, using his facial expressions and body language to do the bulk of his communicating, and he does a fantastic job. I also liked the makeup; since Lisa starts to fall in love with him it's obviously not too grotesque, but it's also clearly monstrous - a tricky balancing act that they pulled off well. The PG-13 dictates we don't see much of his carnage, but one moment is played via shadow and it's kind of amazing, the closest we will get to seeing *that* in a teen-friendly movie. And I definitely appreciated the REO Speedwagon usage; I may in fact be the only person in the audience who actually listened to "Can't Fight This Feeling" earlier in the day just for my own aural pleasure (though that's another weird thing about the movie - Lisa's a goth and has a Bauhaus poster in her room, but the soundtrack itself doesn't have much of such things. There are more Yacht Rock staples than anything you'd hear as house music while waiting for The Cure to take the stage).

And to be fair the humor tends to hit more than miss (which was also the case in Body, it's just not as consistently funny), focusing on the unlikely romance more than jokes (or horror, but I expected that much). Had the characterization and plot been a little more fleshed out and less uneven, it could have been an easy film to recommend to all, not just (for the most part) to teen girls having sleepovers. But even on that level, it sends some weird messages to the impressionable, and even that would be OK if the movie just went full throttle into darker territory. Instead it basically just edges for 95 minutes, always pulling back whenever it feels like it's going to finally kick into high gear and get really memorable, or at least commit to a tone. I don't know if Cody's script had to be sanitized or budget cuts resulted in chopping some grander ideas, but it ultimately just never really came to life for me. It's cute, and intermittently charming, but seems to settle for being "fine", making it feel disappointing considering the talent involved. Great animated opening title sequence though.

What say you?

*Diablo Cody has said that the films exist in the same universe, though there are no ties that I noticed. Also since this film takes place twenty years before that one (and in a different town to boot) I'm not even sure why she bothered saying so, other than to perhaps drum up interest.

PLEASE, GO ON...

Blu-Ray Review: Funeral Home (1980)

FEBRUARY 7, 2024

GENRE: THRILLER
SOURCE: BLU-RAY (OWN COLLECTION)

Today marked the 17th birthday of Horror Movie A Day, and fittingly I spent part of it watching a Blu-ray of a movie that I saw back in the early days of the site. Funeral Home (aka Cries In The Night, which is the title that appears on the film itself but not the packaging) was part of the legendary 50 Chilling Classics set that provided me with such faves as Devil Times Five, Scream Bloody Murder, and of course, my beloved Cathy's Curse. It unfortunately is not as good as those; in fact I actually labeled it "Crap" at the time, which I reserved for movies with no redeeming values whatsoever. But even then I said it probably didn't deserve the same scorn as some of the other movies in there, and it doesn't. I've certainly seen worse.

Funeral Home's main problem isn't even its own fault. It was shot in 1979 and meant to be a thriller, but by the time it was released the slasher sub-genre was kind and so it was marketed (and retitled) to make it seem like one of those. And yes, it has a few deaths committed by an unseen stalker, so in a few scenes it very much feels at home with the Friday the 13ths and such that were so common back then. But it's really more of a Psycho riff, so "proto-slasher" would be more apt, and even on that level it's not particularly exciting. In fact it actually feels a lot like a TV movie from that era; Wes Craven's Summer of Fear came to mind a few times.

But the Psycho lifts get to be a bit grating, especially when the whole movie builds toward a nearly identical climax of the crazed old lady (an actual old lady this time, not her son in a dress) freaking out in the cellar next to a mummified corpse. There's nothing wrong with borrowing from this or that movie, certainly (Halloween took some stuff from the same one, in fact - and I prefer that one!), but you gotta make it your own and add a little flavor, which this movie doesn't actually do. Outside of the four kills (two of which are simultaneous - a couple in a car that the killer pushes over a conveniently adjacent cliff) the movie is just an endless series of scenes where our young heroine Heather (Lesleh Donaldson from Happy Birthday to Me and Curtains, another thing that doesn't help this movie's "not a slasher!" existence) gets suspicious about someone disappearing in the middle of the night, hears an old story that seemingly confirms her suspicions, then readily accepts her grandmother's explanation. It gets to the point where the grandmother NOT being the culprit would have been interesting, but since it sure seems she is (and, you know, she IS), it just leaves the main character - our surrogate - looking like a dope for 90 minutes.

The most suspenseful the movie gets is a scene involving the great Alf Humphreys as the town deputy, who also seems to be the only cop that's concerned about all the people who disappear when they stay in this small town. He's kind of a goof and not taken seriously (real Dewey vibes; he even has a sibling who mocks him), and then late in the movie there's a scene where he insists on seeing the room that the car couple stayed in, with the grandmother accompanying him and by this point not even trying to hide that she's evil. So you spend the whole scene worrying about poor Alf, offering the movie some tension the rest could have really used.

However, as I've learned over the years, every movie is someone's favorite movie, and even if I hated it I'd be the first to champion a remaster, because no movie deserves the fate it previously had. Like most of the transfers on that Chilling Classics set, Funeral Home was a cropped, murky mess, to the extent that I can't even quite place the screenshot I offered in my old review (I was going to do a "then and now" kind of thing but I literally can't tell what the image was). Indeed, I was surprised to see it's actually a fairly good looking movie courtesy of Mark Irwin, who at that point was already working with David Cronenberg and continued to do so for another 5-6 years. And it's also got a great score by Jerry Fielding, a frequent collaborator with Sam Peckinpah and Clint Eastwood, something the cruddy transfer wouldn't have allowed me to appreciate either as my ears would be exclusively focused on trying to make out the dialogue. There's a bit of a weird color shifting going on (more noticeably in the daytime scenes) that's probably due to print damage, but otherwise it's a fine transfer and I'm glad that the movie's fans won't have to suffer that Mill Creek version anymore.

Scream Factory has also assembled a pretty extensive collection of extras as well, including an audio interview with Donaldson and the film's 1st AD (offered as a commentary in the setup menu, so don't look for it in the extras), plus traditional interviews with Irwin, some of the set folks, and Brian Allen, whose father was executive producer Barry Allen. His is probably the most interesting interview, since he explains how the movie came to exist and why it ran into the distribution issues that it did (no movie ends up on a Mill Creek pack unless someone got screwed financially along the way). And he owns drive-ins now, which amused me as I can only imagine how many children were conceived in backseats during showings of this movie thanks to it failing to hold the audience's attention. Mike Felsher also stops by the house that's used as the titular home, showing how part of it has stayed pretty much the same almost 45 years later. I'm always charmed by those kind of videos so it was a nice addition.

The best extra, however, is the historian commentary by Jason Pichonsky And Paul Corupe, as they offer the usual bits of insight about the film and its players, but mostly spend the track discussing Canadian horror of the time and also how the films were given 100% tax rebates by the government, which is how we ended up with so many wacky movies at that time (including Cathy's Curse, though they sadly don't mention it by name). They also spend a good deal of time discussing director William Fruet, who had an interesting career that began in stage productions and dramas before finding success in the horror genre (he also gave us Spasms and the incredible Killer Party). Since he either couldn't be located or simply wasn't interested in contributing an interview or commentary of his own, it more than makes up for his absence by covering his biography pretty extensively.

So it's better than I remembered, but not by much (even Donaldson laughs about how boring it is, so I know it's not just me). But still, I'm glad I gave it another shot (and will go back and remove the "crap" tagging from my old review to be fair), though not as glad as I am for its fans that they finally have a decent way to watch it. And it's always nice to see a legit new title from Scream Factory, as they've pretty much burned through everything they are able to access and most of their recent releases are either 4K upgrades of movies they've already done, or "Who asked for this?" special editions of modern horror movies like the Child's Play remake. This felt like a golden era release!

What say you?

PLEASE, GO ON...

Founders Day (2023)

JANUARY 21, 2024

GENRE: SLASHER
SOURCE: THEATRICAL (REGULAR SCREENING)

For the past 28 years, whenever there’s a new masked whodunit slasher (as opposed to the Terrifier/Hatchet types that are centered on a named boogeyman) one would assume its makers were inspired by Scream. And that’s not a knock, I should stress – why NOT ape what is easily the best of its type we’ll likely ever have, in hopes of capturing that lightning again? But here’s the surprising thing about Founders Day: it did indeed seemingly look to a Wes Craven slasher movie for inspiration, just not that one. Nor were they going back to Nightmare on Elm Street, or even Shocker (though I’d be all for that). No, the point of inspiration seemed to be My Soul To Take, which turned out to be Craven’s penultimate film and (since Scream 4 was such a lackluster snooze) the last genuinely interesting one he made before his unfortunate passing.

To be clear, Founders Day is not a supernaturally or psychologically driven slasher movie. On paper it’s very much a standard whodunit, with a masked “Founding Father” (powdered wig and all!) using a mallet and its hidden blade to wipe out notable members of a small town who are celebrating their tricentennial alongside a very polarizing and heated election for town mayor. Both the incumbent mayor and her primary challenger find themselves and their families targeted by the killer, who also wipes out some teens associated with the candidates’ children, so you got your standard red herrings (the mayor’s assistant? The boyfriend of her daughter? The wannabe new mayor himself?) and such; in fact if it wasn’t shot around the same time I’d say they were actually influenced by Thanksgiving, as it has very similar vibes at times, with the equal mix of teen and adult victims, a remarkably similar sequence where our heroine has an encounter with the killer just after he murders two fornicating bully kids in the school, plus the “small town celebrating its history” backdrop that sets it apart from the usual influences. No one’s ever had a “Haddonfield Day” or whatever, far as I can recall.

But after a decent if unspectacular first forty minutes or so, the movie suddenly pulls out a pretty novel idea: announcing itself as a two-killer slasher by unmasking and offing one of them when there is clearly a lot of movie left to go. This is followed by a bizarre montage of nearly all of the film’s characters reacting to this development over a Kate Bush-esque power ballad cranked up to 11, at which point the movie’s true colors begin to shine through. From that point on, the film is loaded with more random plot turns, strange acting choices (I could write this entire review about the chief of police, who is obsessed with candy and seems like she wandered in from Funny Farm or one of those kind of “small town folk sure are kooky, huh?” movies), and nearly every character screaming their dialogue more often than not. The film’s highlight is not a murder scene or anything else particularly horror-y, but the mayor drunkenly bursting into a town council meeting and yelling absolute nonsense for a while before pivoting to a “And that’s why you need to vote for me!” message. The actress’ total commitment to playing this outlandish moment with utter sincerity made me cackle and applaud, and cemented my appreciation of the movie.

Don’t get me wrong, much like My Soul To Take it’s not particularly great in the ways you showed up for. The kill scenes are hit or miss (they’re brutal at times, but also marred by digital blood) and lack much suspense, and the whole plot hinges on the audience believing something that any seasoned (or even half seasoned) fan won’t buy for a second and makes even less sense with later reveals (if you can’t track it, DM or email me – I can’t figure out a way to even hint at it without it being a spoiler). The killer’s guise looks good (Tony Gardner created the mask, a nice get for this obviously small production), but it’s not utilized enough, as there’s only one chase scene of note and even the killer's big entrance is played mostly in shadows and long shots. But the movie’s straight faced approach makes it seem almost kind of alien at times, like AI spit out something after being prompted with “Politics + slasher + small town.” It was that – plus the genuinely admirable fact that it is a straightforward original slasher without any real genuine humor to speak of – that kept me fully engaged.

Back to the politics though, I can’t tell if it’s good or bad that the movie is pretty apolitical, as it turns out. When we first meet the challenger, a boorish man with dirty blonde hair who is wearing a blue suit and a red tie and clearly cares more about his campaign than his own children, even an infant could probably guess that he’s seemingly meant to invoke You-Know-Who. But it’s the existing mayor who turns out to be an opportunistic jerk who is using the office to pad her pockets, so it’s not the result of someone from either side of the aisle Making A Statement. The candidates’ views and party affiliation are never revealed, either, a necessity since the killer’s motive (spoiler of sorts) boils down to a “They’re all the same” kind of thing, so labeling the characters or hearing their individual thoughts about hot button issues would cloud that approach for viewers who have a pretty clear take on who the bad guys and good guys are when it comes to politics. It never gets any more "Us vs. Them" than the opening sequence, where opposing supporters for the two candidates are interrupted by someone who just survived a Founder attack, at which point they begin fighting over who gets to protect her ("She's on OUR side!") and fighting again, the victim basically forgotten. But after that, the arguments and antagonism never really feel politically charged, and when characters butt heads it comes off like similar moments in movies with zero political ties (the bar fight scene in My Bloody Valentine 3D came to mind, as there's a nearly identical scene here). Long story short, you won’t come out of this having a good idea of who writer/director/co-star Erik Bloomquist is voting for this year, and while that is probably good for the movie’s mainstream appeal, it’s somewhat disappointing to use the political backdrop (in an election year no less) and toe the line. I’d almost rather it was right wing propaganda with slasher dressing; it might annoy me, but it’d also be more interesting in that department.

So it’s a good thing it’s so weird! The scene where the killer explains how certain moments worked, with Saw style flashback footage, is an absolute howler and makes up for Scream VI’s utterly embarrassing reveal scene, coming closer to Urban Legend’s delightful unmasking scene (“Miss THANG!”) and yes, more yelling. Even when the killer has their obligatory “not dead yet!” return, they do so by screaming a line of dialogue I couldn’t even make out, prompting me to start cackling again (I assume the handful of other, quieter people in the theater thought I was deranged, but oh well). And again reminded me of My Soul To Take, as like that film we have killer and victim having an almost casual conversation where exposition is given to each other, as if there were audience members who needed to know where every character was at every point in the story that they weren’t on camera. Weirdly, both films also kick off with a murder on a bridge that has those bumper poles at one end to keep cars off, and I later learned that this new film was also shot in Connecticut, something I dimly recalled about MSTT. And both had animated end credit sequences too, now that I think of it. Future double feature!

I don’t know how well the movie performed over the weekend, as the box office was not reported for it. All I know is that AMC has had the posters up for months and ran trailers before Thanksgiving and Silent Night, only (around LA at least) to dump it on to one or two showings a day on the tiniest theater of the lamest of the three AMCs in Burbank, which means if its situation was like that everywhere else it COULDN’T make that much money. I ended up going to Regal (paying out of pocket! No A-List!) where it was playing at a more normal time in a large auditorium, but there were only like 10 other people there. With the strikes causing a massive reduction in theatrical output from the major studios, it’d be nice to see little movies like this continue to get big screen chances just so the theaters have something new to show, but if no one shows up then they’ll just bring back whatever the last Marvel or family hits were instead, which is a bummer. But once again, this is the kind of movie that isn’t QUITE good enough to all out recommend, especially since, as I mentioned, it kind of blunders the basics (no good chases, CGI kills, way too easy to guess main killer). However, if you enjoy slashers that seem like they’re a little bit “off”, as if they shot a first draft of a script with actors who each thought they were making a different kind of movie, then I wholeheartedly recommend it to quench that rarely satisfied thirst.

What say you?

PLEASE, GO ON...

Cobweb (2023)

JANUARY 8, 2024

GENRE: THRILLER
SOURCE: STREAMING (HULU)

It’s been a long time since Lionsgate took the time to make a horror movie with notable actors and then just randomly burned it off on a few screens with no advertising, so the makers of Cobweb can take solace in that they’re reviving a tradition! It joins the likes of Blood Creek, Haunting in Connecticut 2, Repo, and probably others I’ve forgotten, except the key difference is that I wasn’t able to make it out to one of those random screenings when it opened last July against "Barbenheimer" (a very busy time for whatever reason; it took me a month to see Oppenheimer and I still haven’t seen Barbie). I toyed with the idea of making it a blind buy a few times, but now that it’s popped up on Hulu I saved myself the 20 bucks but also actually used my Hulu account for something besides What We Do In The Shadows, so it’s a real win win.

Especially since, as it turns out, it’s not a movie I need to see again, so that Blu-ray would have gone back for 9 cents in trade-in value. It’s a pretty good movie and worth watching, but it’s also one of those movies that presents a “Are they evil or not?” mystery that, once you know the answer, renders it less interesting to rewatch (on that note, I threw it under "thriller", but only because the specific sub-genre is also a spoiler). It also has a terrible final scene that knocked it down a peg (read: Letterboxd star) for me, so that didn’t help. But your mileage will vary, of course – a number of friends called it among the best horror films of the year, and (spoiler) I’d never want to turn folks off from seeing a horror movie that actually has the stones to kill a kid.

The plot is pretty simple and straightforward: a bullied kid named Peter (weirdly, same kid from Last Voyage of the Demeter, which was released around the same time and where HE was surprisingly killed) hears noises in his room and his strict, clearly “off” parents (Lizzy Caplan and Antony Starr) keep chalking it up to an overactive imagination. But given their hesitance to let him go out much beyond school, or have people over, and other odd behaviors, it’s clear the parents are hiding something and that the noises – which eventually become the voice of a girl asking for help - are probably in fact very real, but the movie doesn’t come right out and say so. So, while it often works as it should in keeping you in suspense, it’s a movie where the would-be antagonist can never really go too far into villain territory because then we’d know they are indeed evil, nor can they just explain what’s going on because then there’s no movie.

And so for an hour we watch scene after scene of the parents acting mildly threatening but never outright BAD, until the runtime reaches a point where we can learn the secret of the noises in the walls and what, if any, the parents’ involvement is with them. I was slightly disappointed that it ends up being a variation of the reveal in another genre movie from 2016 (the title of which will be too much of a spoiler, but if you want a hint: it had a sequel that I disliked!), but the villain is a memorably creepy one all the same. Plus, it makes up for the first hour's balancing act by decimating a group of bullies who came to torment Peter, including an offscreen but still somewhat startling beheading (we see the aftermath via the still walking body). There’s some unfortunate CGI in these moments that hampers their effectiveness a bit, but it’s forgivable when you consider how much the movie decides to earn its R rating after a full on PG-13 first hour.

But man, that final scene. Without spoiling its particulars, it basically feels like there was a five minute epilogue of sorts that they decided to cut down into 60 seconds with narration by the villain. Why they’d do that I don’t know; it’s not a very long movie and the credits run at a crawl to pad it up to (almost) 90 minutes, but it really does a disservice to the film. It’s hard to tell if the images we’re seeing are imagined or an actual future for the hero (we see him in a different bedroom, so it seems he moved to a happier environment), and it also weakens the “I’ll be back someday” threat the villain is attempting to make. WILL it be back? Or is it just leaving the kid forever scared at the idea it *might*, like some kind of boogeyman? It’s unclear, but the credits run long enough to debate it with whoever you’re watching with!

(Fairly clear evidence that this was a re-edit is given right at the top of the film, as we see two editors listed with the second being Kevin Greutert, who when he’s not making Saw films is basically the horror industry’s go-to editor for reworking movies that are coming up short with test audiences.)

Otherwise: pretty good little creeper! Caplan and Starr do a fine job of walking their fine line between “strict parents” and “possibly murderers”, and along with Castle Rock (amusingly, the reason I got Hulu in the first place) serves as a fine reminder that Caplan is a terrific actress, since she's best known for being hilarious and charming in things, but can adapt to genre roles with uncanny ease. And as a Last Man on Earth fan I was happy to see Cleopatra Coleman in something, playing the kid’s obligatory “teacher who notices something is wrong and oversteps her boundaries” (I got some real Antlers vibes at times, in fact). The score, attributed to “Drum & Lace” (Sofia Hultquist) is quite good, and perhaps best of all, it’s a Halloween-set movie but without going overboard with it or dropping in overt homages to Carpenter (a bully does smash a pumpkin, but it doesn’t play like a tribute to Tommy’s). Given the “lonely kid trying to help a possible ghost” plot, I think it’d pair nicely with Lady in White, in fact.

Ultimately it’s not hard to see why Lionsgate buried it; with violence toward kids and a plot that doesn’t give them much to market it around (i.e. an action figure-ready villain), it was probably never going to be a big theatrical hit anyway, though I always wonder why it is they make these movies in the first place – don’t they know from the script that it’s not going to be something the mainstream masses will latch on to? And it’d work just as well at home to boot, so: sure, let’s get it onto streaming services as quickly as possible. But with the strikes and lingering production slowdown from the pandemic, you’d think any finished movie would be worth giving a shot to just in case it connects, plus horror fans don’t exactly get spoiled by a glut of movies throughout the year and would probably show up out of curiosity if they knew it was there. I just wish I could give it a fully committed endorsement, but that final 90 seconds and maybe a few too many “if they just say ______ the movie would end so they’ll be vague and weird for no other reason” moments keep it in “Yeah it’s pretty good, go ahead and watch it if you have Hulu” territory, but not as "background viewing" the way so many streaming films are. It's worth your full attention!

What say you?

PLEASE, GO ON...

Terror Train 2 (2022)

DECEMBER 31, 2023

GENRE: SLASHER
SOURCE: STREAMING (TUBI)

Unlike Halloween and Christmas, there aren’t a lot of New Year’s-set horror movies, and let’s face it – neither Terror Train or New Year’s Evil (I know they’re not the only ones, but they’re the most popular) are amazing enough to revisit every year. So last year I opted to watch the *remake* of Terror Train that had popped up on Tubi, only to laugh when I discovered one of the only two changes of note it made from the original film is that it changed the holiday from NYE to, sigh, Halloween. Which, to be fair, actually makes the costume element make more sense, but since I wanted something seasonal and it turned out to be unrelated I was mildly annoyed. But thankfully, Terror Train 2 takes place a year – and two months! – later, setting itself on December 31st and restoring balance to the universe.

It’s also a better movie than its predecessor, which it was shot back to back with. Normally, combined productions like this tend to mean that the second of the pair is much lesser than the first (for examples: Matrix Reloaded/Revolutions, Pirates 2 and 3, etc), but that’s not the case here, and ironically it’s the very nature of that sort of production that allowed it to come off as the better of the two. If this was a traditional sequel, it’d probably have a mostly new cast, with some survivors forgotten, and there would probably be a new location as well (or at least a *different* train). But by jumping right into it with the same cast and crew, that means pretty much everyone that survived the original is back here, and by being on the same train it feels more like a successful do-over than traditional sequel.

Because as I mentioned (and for those who haven’t seen it), the remake only made two changes from the original, one being the rather superfluous day it was set on, and the other was the identity of the killer. Rather than go with the magician's assistant, the remake (spoiler) changed it to the conductor of the train (Carne, the Ben Johnson character in the original, played by a woman) and chalked it up to the umpteenth “vengeful parent” excuse, as Carne was revealed to be the mother of the kid they pranked at the beginning. So along with the much less interesting cast, CGI blood, etc it made the remake a very trying experience, offering almost nothing new while doing the same thing we already saw before only poorly, with its two changes of note only reminding you of other slasher movies (Halloween and Friday the 13th, namely). Here, they’re into entirely new territory with regards to its plot, so I just found myself more interested in the proceedings, as I didn’t know who would die and when (and where, and how, etc). Hell, even though the killer’s identity was different last time I was still able to figure it out long before it was revealed, but here I actually guessed wrong! The person I pegged as the new villain took an axe to the back barely over the halfway point!

But in my defense (big spoiler here, so skip this paragraph) I have been conditioned to accept that the killer in a slasher sequel will never be someone from the previous movie. Not that there are a lot of whodunit slasher sequels, but if you look at the handful – the Scream series, the Last Summers, Urban Legend(s) – you’ll see that the new killers are always new characters as well. The closest we ever got was when there was a draft of Scream 2 that turned Cotton into the killer he was accused of being in the first place, but that got changed (rightfully so IMO), while I Still Know just had it be the same guy with a new character, and Urban Legends: Final Cut introduced an entirely new cast anyway (save Reese, of course). So naturally, as a slasher connoisseur going back over 30 years at this point, my eyes were only trained on the handful of new characters, only to see most of them get killed before the climax, allowing the reveal to work as something of a surprise (but not a cheat – important distinction). So good on you, Terror Train 2 – you had the balls to do something Scream never did across five sequels.

Of course, the flipside to all of this is that you have to accept the dumbest setup in slasher history (or at least tied with I Still Know’s radio station trip to Bahamas nonsense) for all of this to occur. I can KIND OF buy the idea that today’s social media obsessed millennials would be jealous of survivor Alana and think what she went through was so cool, and also that they’d want to commemorate the events on the train (though the holiday switcheroo makes this a little awkward – why are they celebrating it on New Year’s when it happened on Halloween?), but Alana AND The Magician both being coerced to join the festivities, plus Sadie the assistant conductor, who is now the conductor? It’s a bit too much “Dick Thornburg was also on Holly’s plane” sequel nonsense for me, even by the already low standards set by a cheapie/quickie sequel being offered for free on Tubi. Like, at least leave Sadie or the Magician *off* the train and just trying to get there to help, or something.

But otherwise (and the return of the CGI blood, though there are some practical spurts on occasion and a surprisingly gnarly disemboweling) it’s shockingly “pretty good” for the most part. I honestly can’t recall a slasher sequel that brought back literally everyone (even Scream 2 left Sid’s dad out of it), and even in the first one I enjoyed the Magician and Alana’s platonic friendship, so I was happy to see more of it here. And even though I’ve seen it a million times by now, I’ll never not laugh at dumb comments from the clueless viewers who find themselves watching a live streamed murder in one of these things. Also, since every horror movie heroine has trauma now, at least they put it to good use – Alana’s PTSD includes hallucinations, so at one point she sees an actual murder taking place and assumes she’s just imagining it again, turning around and doing her breathing exercises to calm down. Heh.

That said, it’s also one of those things where I can’t help but wonder if it’s actually worth watching or if it’s only benefiting from my extremely low expectations. I’d also be curious how it was received by people who never saw the 1980 film and thus were able to watch (and enjoy?) the remake without the déjà vu distracting them the entire time. Maybe they were annoyed at the reveal and/or seeing their favorite returning character(s) die. But for those like me who think the OG is entertaining but no classic and were equally baffled that the remake couldn’t be bothered to make any real changes until the last ten minutes, I think you’ll agree this one, if nothing else, shows a little more effort. And that’s always worth noting in this day and age. Especially right now, when we’re besieged by “Mickey Mouse horror!” trailers thanks to the "Steamboat Willie" copyright expiration. I’ll take Terror Train 7 over any more of that dumb crap.

What say you?

PLEASE, GO ON...

FTP: The Wax Mask (1997)

DECEMBER 16, 2023

GENRE: GIALLO, MAD SCIENTIST
SOURCE: BLU-RAY (OWN COLLECTION)

There’s kind of a heartbreaking moment on the bonus features for The Wax Mask (Italian: Maschera di cera), where Sergio Stivaletti notes that the movie never got a fair shake from horror fans. Not a direct quote because I don’t have the patience to go back and find where he says it (more on that soon) but the gist is “It was never seen as the exciting debut movie from a FX artist they liked – it was always the movie Lucio Fulci was going to make and I replaced him when he died.” And he’s right; you’d be hard-pressed to find a single review or article about the film from the past 25 years that doesn’t practically lead with “This was supposed to be a Fulci comeback movie,” which is unfair to Stivaletti (for those not privy to the history: Fulci died weeks before production was set to begin). The closest equivalent I can think of would be A.I. being directed by Spielberg instead of Kubrick, but it’s not like the ‘berg was making his debut, you know? We trusted him.

But one thing that’s not mentioned as much is, you know, it’s very likely the movie wouldn’t have been very good with Fulci calling the shots, either. At that point he hadn’t made a good flick in over a decade, and the Italian film industry’s decreased interest in horror (Stivaletti notes it may have been the only major Italian horror film being produced at that time, saying they were more interested in distributing American disaster movies of the era) meant that they weren’t afforded the same resources they had access to in the early 80s. With the story being a period piece, I feel it always would have come off as underwhelming at best, and (ironically) some of the film’s only real memorable moments were apparently things Stivaletti added that wouldn’t have been in Fulci’s version anyway.

I mean don’t get me wrong, the movie’s not terrible – at times it’s actually fairly entertaining. It’s just one of those things where the names you see in the credits (in addition to Fulci, who wrote the majority of the script, it was also co-written and produced by Dario Argento) elevate expectations. If you snipped off the opening titles and showed it to someone without context, they’d probably walk away thinking it was a decent enough spin on House of Wax, where a reporter and the museum’s new employee work together to solve the mystery of why those wax figures look so darn realistic and if it has anything to do with a string of disappearances. There are a few gory murders, some goofy mid-90s CGI shots that I find charming now (man did they love their morphing FX back then!), frequent sex scenes with actual nudity (also charming since such things don’t exist anymore), and a fiery climax that gave off low-key Hammer vibes. Nothing too exciting or memorable, but, you know, it’s fine!

That said, it never really looks all that well, which kept me at arm’s length. Cinematographer Sergio Salvati was Fulci’s DP for a number of his classics, but sadly it looks more like Salvati’s later work with Full Moon (including the OG Puppet Master), where everything is over lit and soap opera-ish. Honestly if it wasn’t for the time discrepancy I’d swear it was shot on video, so again I can’t help but think if Fulci had survived I’d have the same issues with it that I do under Stivaletti’s watch, and if anything I give him a little more benefit of the doubt since he’s a first timer whereas Fulci would have no excuse for it to look this phony (with the fact that it’s supposed to be 1912 even harder to buy when it looks like they shot it with something they bought at Circuit City). And as I mentioned, one of the best things in the movie is an out of nowhere Terminator-esque scene where the villain, revealed to basically be a robot wearing human skin, is melted down to his exoskeleton and chases the heroes for a bit as the fire rages behind them all. It’s delightfully batshit, offering the movie the sort of energy that it could have used throughout in order to offset its deficiencies.

Stivaletti, Argento, producer Giuseppe Colombo, and a couple others (none of the lead actors, alas) are on hand for a retrospective documentary that is annoyingly broken into several different featurettes, despite having the same people in all of them. Like I get that they want to pad the bonus features menu (indeed, I was kind of overwhelmed when I first loaded it up), but why not just have each interview separate? They obviously put together a 80ish minute doc and then cut it all up – next time make that “we need more bonus features” call before wasting the time of the editor who saw their work split into chunks. Especially since you kind of have to watch all of them anyway to get the context of what they’re talking about; like one just discusses the cast and even a child could be able to detect that it’s lacking a proper intro and stops suddenly. Also they’re all in Italian with non-burned in subtitles, so you can’t even cheat and fast forward at 2x (while reading fast) to get through them all. There’s a solid interview with Alan Jones about some of the project’s history and reputation, and a vintage featurette of Argento on the set, where it seems there was some Spielberg/Hooper/Poltergeist kinda stuff going on re: who was actually directing at times. And there’s a commentary, which is fine – I was most engaged by the Italian Stivaletti speaking English and occasionally asking moderator/Severin guru David Gregory to translate (“It’s a… word joke?” Stivaletti questions, with Gregory deciphering what he meant: “Play on words”). It’s cute! Oh and somewhere in there (again, if it wasn’t all broken up I might be able to find it again easier) Argento tells a delightful story about the lead actor Robert Hossein hooking up with one of the film’s actresses, only for her husband to catch them. But Hossein, thinking fast, told them they were just rehearsing their love scene and she was naked so she could start getting used to being undressed on camera. Hahahah, what a legend.

What say you?

PLEASE, GO ON...

Godzilla Minus One (2023)

DECEMBER 3, 2023

GENRE: MONSTER
SOURCE: THEATRICAL (REGULAR SCREENING)

Once upon a time, I got invited to press screenings and also went to more festivals, which meant I got to see newer movies before hearing too much about them. Which was great, because I’m (sadly) easily swayed by the hype (or the rumblings) and then end up feeling the opposite way, because my expectations have been skewed in one direction or the other. It’s something I try to avoid as much as possible, but it’s kind of unavoidable, especially when by the time I end up seeing something it’s from buying a ticket to the Sunday night showing of its opening weekend (by which point reviews have been going around for a week or two). But every now and then there’s a movie like Godzilla Minus One, where all the praise turned out to be pretty on the mark.

I should preface the rest of this review by noting that I’m hardly a Godzilla expert, but more of a casual fan at best. I’ve liked most of the ones I’ve seen (not too many; counting the new Monsterverse types I put the total at 12, including this*), but apart from the original and King of the Monsters I wouldn’t say any of them are movies I’d want to watch a second time (even though I have ended up revisiting a few for various reasons). Not that they’re bad movies (well, Emmerich’s is) but it’s just not my thing – I am entertained by them and then kind of forget about them a few days later. So me saying that Minus One might be my absolute favorite of the lot – or at least tied with the original – may not carry as much weight as a die hard aficionado saying as much (and I know some of those types who have indeed declared this their favorite), but hey, it should count for something, right?

Part of why it works as well the OG is because, well, it’s a period piece set around the same time – actually a few years before. Our hero is Shikishima, a WWII kamikaze pilot who is too afraid to carry out his suicide mission and flies to an island where planes are being fixed, claiming a maintenance issue with his aircraft. He’s barely just arrived when Godzilla stomps his way onto the island, killing all but one of the mechanics while Shikishima once again is too afraid to engage in battle. The only surviving mechanic, Tachibana, blames Shikishima for their deaths, and then the poor sod gets an even worse heaping of guilt when he returns to his hometown and discovers his parents have perished in an air raid that might have been prevented if he had committed to his duty as a kamikaze pilot.

It’s an intriguing and utterly messed up take on the “hero needs to atone” story, because basically everyone is mad at this guy for not committing suicide, and he himself feels bad about it. And thus as Godzilla continues to stomp and smash his way around Japan, Shikishima is basically on a path of “I need to kill myself to feel better about all the deaths I might have prevented!”, leaving us in the audience in the odd position of either hoping he continues to be a coward so that he won’t die, or egging on his demise. I kept thinking of the end of Armageddon, when Billy Bob Thornton is basically screaming at Bruce Willis to “push the button!” when pushing said button means killing himself – it’s basically that kind of weird moment stretched out for two hours.

Luckily, it’s not as grim as that sounds. In fact, it’s kind of a charming movie at times, particularly in the middle chunk of the film when it’s essentially Jaws but with Godzilla instead of Bruce. A few years after returning home, Shikishima gets a job on a boat that goes out on the sea to find and deactivate all the mines that were planted in the waters by both Japanese and US military during WWII, only to find G out there as he makes his way back to land. There’s a riveting sequence where they’re trying to use one of the mines they’ve collected to blow him up that is akin to the barrel scene in Spielberg’s classic, and the camaraderie among the four guys on the boat has elements of the Quint/Brody/Hooper dynamic as well. Honestly I would have been just as happy, perhaps even more so, if this was how the rest of the movie played out, with these four guys (each with their own reasons for being there) trying to stop Godzilla before he got back to the mainland, but eventually their boat is proven to be too small for the gig and more military/scientist types come to the rescue for a grander final act.

In fact if I had one minor complaint about the movie, it’s that the waterbound climax lacks the same kind of tension a land-driven one would provide. Sure, the crew of the two big battleships (plus Shikishima in a fighter plane) is at stake, but one of the things about the movie is that he keeps getting bigger, and that scale is hard to judge when he’s just surrounded by water instead of people and buildings. I also find myself puzzled in this sequence, as he appears to be just standing in the water in many shots but the plan involves using the two ships to tie a massive weight belt around him and sink him to the bottom of the ocean below, so he can’t be touching the ground where he is. I guess he’s just really good at treading water? All that said, it’s worth it for their plan B, which is that if sinking him to the bottom doesn’t kill him (from the pressure), they will remotely trigger some inflatable things on the same belt that will make him skyrocket back up and basically kill him from the bends. Again, I haven’t seen all of these movies, but of the ones I HAVE seen, the method of stopping him has never been from something Thom Yorke sang about back when he could still write coherent songs.

The other thing that the water prevents is G moving around with as much force, which is a bummer because he is legit terrifying in this one. The opening sequence with the mechanics is actually full on scary in ways that giant monster movies rarely are – the original Jurassic Park might be the last time I found myself really tensed up from a giant monster scene, as it really delivers on him being a MONSTER as opposed to a force of nature of some sort. Like, yeah, one swing of his tail can knock over a building and kill hundreds, but there’s something far more unsettling about him seeing a person and eating him or deliberately using that same tail to swat him hundreds of feet through the air and let him die when he lands. And by keeping the movie’s giant monster population to just one (another thing it has in common with the original), it avoids any kind of “Well he’s more of an anti-hero because we need him to stop this other monster” angle that too many others rely on, though I understand that the series would get quite stale if it was just “Godzilla is here/back, we have to stop him!” every time. It's a double edged spiky tail.

Naturally, as is always the case despite some erroneous claims to the contrary, a hefty portion of the movie is devoted to human drama, though as with Godzilla himself the material is well above average. Shikishima is a sympathetic hero and his relationships with the other characters are just as compelling as any of the effect-driven scenes. He has a neighbor who lost her children to the air strike and blames him for their deaths, though she slowly warms to him as he does his best to care for a survivor named Noriko, who is caring for a baby (Akiko) whose parents also died. It’s endearing to watch this little makeshift family come together, and I also enjoyed the strained relationship he has with the other guy who survived the opening island attack. Shikishima feels enlisting this man to help him fix the plane he needs to take out Godzilla will help make up for his cowardice then, and so the other man is given his own dilemma: help the man he despises, or do nothing and risk more deaths from the actual threat? So many of the ones I’ve seen have had rather corny human elements (the love triangle in Raids Again comes to mind, or the dull business dealings in Mothra vs Godzilla), so I liked that not only were these more interesting, but actually tied into Godzilla as well. It’s not that they have to put aside their differences to stop him – he’s the root cause of their differences in the first place!

Oh and the music is terrific. I damn near cheered when the main theme really kicked in at a key point during the climax. It was like the “Brothers in Arms” cue in Fury Road in how pumped it got me for the already exciting action on screen.

Honestly, unless you demand a certain number of buildings to be destroyed in these things, I don’t know how you can walk away disappointed with this one as long as you understand that these movies are always at their best when they have compelling humans on the ground that Godzilla stomps upon. Sure, it’s not as destructive as some others (including Shin Godzilla, which was also well received but I found rather average) and those accustomed to the monster brawls might be taken aback by the lack of another kaiju for him to fight, but it’s clear everyone involved wanted to truly get back to what made the original such a classic, and (quite impressively) giving it a modern spin despite the period setting. It really just works on all levels, and I suspect will be the go-to influence for any number of series entries over the next few decades. And I’m stoked it was given a proper US theatrical release, something that’s eluded the series for quite some time (Shin was given a limited release in art house theaters, and Godzilla 2000 was a recut version); since it’s been successful I hope the trend continues from here on out. It should always be just as easy to see the big foreign films here in the US as it is for them to see Marvel and Minions movies there. What say you?

*The others being the original, Raids Again, King Kong vs, Mothra vs, vs Biollante, Emmerich, 2000, Shin, and the three WB/Legendary ones.

PLEASE, GO ON...

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